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No jab, no job – the moral minefield confronting the UK government

Gaby Hinsliff
·6 min read

It’s the exclusive club millions long to join, the VIP pass that promises to smuggle us past the velvet rope. Although so far, it’s only for older and vulnerable people. Every day, the Covid jab starts to look more like a golden ticket back to normality, or at the very least a holiday. Without one, it’s already impossible to book many cruises, or an international flight with Qantas. And in more daring pensioner circles, it’s becoming the key to an illicit social life too.

An older acquaintance let slip this week that underground dinner parties are back among his friends, although invites are strictly limited to those who are jabbed. He hasn’t yet dared take advantage, but wonders whether, when legal socialising resumes this summer, vaccine refusers will find themselves social pariahs.

With the vaccine’s promise of freedom comes a dilemma over how to deal with those who refuse to accept it. Uptake in Britain has been enviably high so far, rising as a smooth rollout inspires confidence. But research has consistently predicted that it would be most popular among older people, with vaccinators likely to meet more resistance as they work their way down to those young enough not to fear dying.

Related: Coronavirus vaccine: one of UK's largest care home firms introduces 'no jab, no job' policy

Uptake among care home workers – as low as 52% in London, according to figures obtained by the shadow care minister, Liz Kendall – is ringing alarm bells, although it’s unclear whether that’s solely down to reluctance or difficulty reaching appointments. This week, one of Britain’s biggest care home operators announced that staff who refuse the vaccine will be considered to have made themselves unavailable for work.

For weeks, ministers have been downplaying the idea of vaccine passports, which could be used to deny people who are unjabbed access to pubs, clubs, sporting or musical events, and potentially some workplaces. But this week brought a sudden volte-face. Now Michael Gove is to lead a review into whether they might be feasible, once all adults have been offered a dose. Presumably, it hasn’t escaped ministers that promising twentysomethings a summer of Reading festival and football matches and clubbing, but only if they take the vaccine, could powerfully incentivise the age group most likely not to bother. Although officially the cabinet remains open-minded, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, admitted that he would “probably do pretty much sort of anything” to go to the cinema or theatre again.

Not everyone, however, is so desperate to see the latest James Bond. The pressure group Liberty warns that vaccine passports could create a “two-tier society”, where unvaccinated peole overlap too closely for comfort with those who are already marginalised and discriminated against. Vaccine uptake is lower in BAME communities, targeted by disinformation campaigns and often with good historical reasons to distrust authority figures, but also in poor white communities. People who aren’t registered with a GP, move around frequently, or live pressured and chaotic lives are also easily missed.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable that care workers nursing frail nonagenarians should be expected to do what they can to avoid accidentally killing them, just as surgeons are required to have hepatitis jabs in order to protect their patients. But if care workers can be pressured into choosing between jab and job, then what about bus drivers or hairdressers, or tradespeople coming into people’s homes?

Unions worry that some employers might scrap safety measures at work, relying on hiring people they know have been vaccinated as a cheap way of keeping Covid out. That’s not only risky, given that no vaccine is 100% effective, but disastrous for workers who can’t have the jab on medical grounds, including pregnant women for whom it isn’t universally recommended, and people suffering from various medical conditions.

Yet this group, in turn, is entitled to protection from idiots who wilfully endanger them. If a pregnant woman would rather not share a desk with someone who refuses to get vaccinated for no good reason, should she be forced to? Is she entitled to ask, when she books a minicab, if the driver has had the jab? Does the freedom to go to the pub now come with a responsibility not to think yourself so young and invincible that you can’t be bothered rolling up a sleeve?

Herd immunity alone isn’t going to guarantee the safe reopening of crowded theatres and packed nightclubs. Add the one in five people that it’s estimated may ultimately fail to get the jab to all those who legitimately can’t have it (including children, for whom it isn’t yet licensed), plus the unlucky few who may still catch Covid despite being vaccinated, and up to half the population might still be at risk this summer. That’s more than enough to keep the virus circulating and mutating. Yet making freedom conditional on facing the needle takes us perilously close to the concept of compulsory vaccination, forcing anxious people to accept something they don’t trust or else go underground – hardly likely to reassure anyone whose fear of the vaccine is bound up with a fear of an authoritarian state. So here are a few fundamental tests against which to judge Gove’s review.

Any new scheme should only go with a targeted national effort to cajole, persuade and reassure those who are genuinely frightened. This effort should include trained staff going door to door in neighbourhoods where people are proving hard for vaccinators to reach. Any Covid certificate should carry test results as well as vaccine records, so that people who can’t or won’t get immunised can prove they’ve recently tested negative as an alternative, ensuring nobody is denied a social life because of a medical condition.

Health and care professionals have a professional duty to get the vaccine but they’re a special case, and employers more broadly should not be given unprecedented powers of coercion that are open to abuse. Nobody should be refused public services – a school place, say, or a dentist’s appointment – for lack of a certificate. But none of us has a divine right to go to the pub, get on a plane or go out for dinner, and those who wilfully put others at risk must accept that antisocial choices can have consequences.

For a year now, people around the world have accepted what would once have been unthinkable impositions in order to save the lives of strangers. Some have buried their parents without being able to hold a proper funeral, or given birth with nobody there to hold their hand. We have lived, grieved and marked milestones that will never come again while separated from those we love. Those sacrifices have been painful, but people’s willingness to make them has been a powerful reminder of the responsibility we feel towards each other, and showing up for a jab is the final step in that process. Those who refuse the vaccine have the right to do so. But they can’t be surprised if the world moves on, in small but life-affirming ways, without them.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist